A Memory of Maya Angelou

Oola and I and a few ex-convicts who still remember were saddened to hear of the death of Maya Angelou.  Here is a story we all shared in.

Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou

In the early nineties I was working as a fine arts administrator at the Northern California Women’s Facility in Stockton, CA.  (This was about the time Oola was born.)

A community women’s organization got a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to bring writers into my program.  Among them were Tillie Olsen, Joan Baez (the mother), and Maya Angelou.  My job was to clear the administrative hurdles in the prison to make the visits run smoothly.  Everyone was excited about the visits of all the authors, but especially they were aflutter about meeting Ms. Angelou.

One afternoon, shortly before the visit, my clerk came into the art room laughing her *** off.   “Ms. Dove” she spurted,  “Do you know why so many inmates are signing up for this talk.  They think that the great painter Michelangelo is coming!  I just had to tell someone he’s been DEAD for 400 years!”

The evening of the visit came.  I escorted our guests to the chapel, which was filled to overflowing — I had done my best to disabuse the population of the sculptor/painter’s visit.

Ms. Angelo was the personification of dignity, elegance, authority, and kindness.  And she was funny.  Her audience roared at stories from her life; I still remember her telling of first imbibing Silovitz (“WHITE lightening”) during a dancing tour in Eastern Europe.  Skillfully she brought her stories around to the concept of true humility — not saying or thinking “I can’t; I’m not good enough.”  But proclaiming through one’s existence, “I am, and this is what I am.”  Her message couldn’t have been better targeted or presented to the women in that room.

Now, part of the audience was non-inmate.  Most of us were in the standing-room-only section.  But there were a small number of us “civilians” who wanted to bask in Ms. Angelo’s light.  In particular I remember  a chaplain wagging his annoying tail feathers.  Ms. Angelo deftly handled the situation as she was walking back down the aisle.  She directed the audience’s attention to those of us who had done all the work and were standing quietly by the door.  She pointed us out as examples of true humility.  I felt myself wrapped in her warm embrace.

Stacy Hay

Stacy’s home is amazing.  There is art — completed and in process — everywhere.  There is no separation between her family’s lives and their art.

Stacy has been making monoprints since I have known her.  But she says that the prints she has made in the past years since she stopped being Artist Facilitator and started being a correctional counselor (read: overworked, undervalued, prison case worker) have not been satisfying to her and never felt finished.  So —  now that she is out of the prison business entirely —  she has started cutting them up and making collages.

Vortex, Stacy Hay
Vortex, Stacy Hay

They have a wonderful intelligence.  They are stories of short, high flights experienced by one who is spiritually bonded (in the best sense of the word) to Mother Earth.

Jitterbug 1
Jitterbug 1, Stacey Hay

I like how the process gives the viewer a “punched through” access to different layers of different worlds.

Jitterbug 2, Stacy Hay
Jitterbug 2, Stacy Hay
Blur Jitterbug, Stacy Hay
Blue Jitterbug, Stacy Hay

She thinks of them as divertimenti, little works that grow bit by bit as she “shuffles” creatively from project to project.  I for one would like to see these grow into giant “opuses”.  With her hard-earned new freedom, where might they go?

It’s time to thank Stacy and family for their warm hospitality during cold rainy days and frosty nights. Time to move on.
More adventures on the road will be coming, maybe in the Spring.

Jan and Oola

Click here for a short history of colorful Sonora.

Trip to Sonora

It’s raining and Oola and I are in Sonora in  California’s mother lode to visit a friend from my Prison Arts days, Stacy Hay.  All during the leisurely drive up here on Hwy 120 I had time to remember my past many trips on this road and to note the changes – mostly bigger little towns and more subdivisions.

I made a point of stopping at Knight’s Ferry on the Stanislaus River, a place I had passed by so many times in the past (thinking I should go there sometime when I had more time, or when it was not so brutally hot). There Oola and I discovered a tidy State recreation area. And she noted that there is something strikingly melancholy about picnic grounds in the rain.

But Oola enjoyed her walk across the longest covered bridge in the State, and I found out that bridges are covered to make their wooden construction last longer.  Wood can remain perfectly preserved under water, but will disintegrate in cycles of wet and dry.  There must be a homily in there somewhere.

Knight's Ferry covered bridge
Knight's Ferry Covered Bridge

As we got closer to Jamestown my spine began to creep with the memories of working as an artist in the State Prison there,  something that I 1) would recommend to all artists, 2) would never do again, but 3) am glad that I did.  Surreal is a kind word for it.

For several years Stacy and I were Artist Facilitators (Fine Arts Administrators/teachers) and as such brought writers, visual artists, actors, dancers, and musicians into the prison to teach their skills to our inmates.

Artist Facilitators were a strange, efficient, compassionate, tough-minded, energetic, firm, knowledgeable, stressed, and inventive breed of artist.  They had people with NEEDS (inmates, staff, supervisors, and family) pulling on them from all directions.   They worked hard to make positive things happen in a (racist, sterile, hellish, and human) place few can imagine who have not been there.

I know that many of the institution staff where I worked thought I was bringing “milk and cookies” to the inmates.  But I know that through the arts small miracles happened: that (at least in the moment) racism was overcome, that inmates kept out of trouble, and they kept trouble from happening in my program — because I had all the colored pencils and they wanted access to those colored pencils.  And I also know that — through the arts — some lives were changed.

Stacy and I dealt with inmates who appreciated/needed our efforts, and we worked with jerks.  I always said that I did not want to know my students’ crimes.  Nor could I be responsible for their futures.  As an artist I worked with individuals in the moment when they had the opportunity through the art form to be the best human being they could be at that moment.

The AIC program is gone now due to penny-wise, pound-foolish budget cuts.  But some inmates’ lives were changed for the better.  They are your neighbors now, and so, your lives are the better for it too.

AND…Oola –Ta-DAAA — was born in an Arts in Corrections class, one of the few where I had time to join in.  The perfect doll, Oola stayed in a plastic bag for her first several years.  But now she is an outspoken advocate — of what I am not always sure.

Oola's mom
Oola's Mother (apologies to Whistler) tells Oola, "Your Father wanted a boy, but we love you just the way you are".

If you want to know more about Arts in Corrections and the Prison Arts program, here are a few links to get you started.